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A Small Town In Texas
(1976)

Director: Jack Starrett           
Cast:
Timothy Bottoms, Susan George, Bo Hopkins


There's more than ample evidence for the argument that for twenty-five years, American-International Pictures was the king of the drive-in. Time and again, producers James Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff demonstrated they had their finger on popular culture, personally producing dozens of genre pictures that were not only popular with audiences, but generally of a higher quality than the product their independent competitors were putting out. Of course, A.I.P. (and its sister distributors Hallmark and Trans American) released a number of other movies during the years that weren't produced by Nicholson and Arkoff. At first most of these movies were simple pick-ups; in each case, a separate (and often foreign) production unit had made the movie and afterwards shopped around for the U.S. distribution rights, with A.I.P. making the purchase for them. But as A.I.P. entered the '70s, something funny started happening inside the company. For reasons I have not been able to find out, Arkoff (Nicholson had left the company and shortly afterwards died) almost totally stopped "in-house" production in the company. From that point on until the company was bought and dissolved in the '80s, almost the entire output of A.I.P. was either pick-ups, or else product made by outside production agencies with A.I.P. picking up the production tab and the copyright.

A Small Town In Texas was one of these productions (despite being produced by Arkoff's son Louis), and is a good example of Hopkins was a little tongue in cheek as the sheriffthe inferior quality these productions boasted in comparison to the in-house product. It was an age when the redneck was box office gold, so it's not surprising that A.I.P. would get involved in a cinematic southern tale of car chases and dangerous sheriffs (and not for the first time, I must add.) Though this time around it turned to be a tale of sound and fury, signifying nothing. It starts off with the youthful Poke Jackson (Bottoms of That's My Bush fame) waiting for the bus that will take him to his home town of... well, a small town in Texas whose name I don't believe is once mentioned. We learn that Poke has been in the poke for five years, having been convicted of some marijuana offense by the town sheriff, Duke (Hopkins, Nightmare At Noon). Though just out of prison, Poke already has big plans in mind; once back in that small town in Texas, he plans to reunite with his high school sweetie Mary Lee (George, Straw Dogs and Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry) and the child they had just before he was imprisoned, and take them to California with him for a fresh start.

Poke's plan above sounds pretty straightforward and reasonable, doesn't it? And when Sheriff Duke meets Poke at the small town in Texas' bus station, Duke seems pretty pleased when Poke tells him he just has to take care of a few things before leaving for good, so there doesn't seem to be any potential problem at that end. So everything should be cut and dried. Unfortunately for us, while Poke's immediate plans may initially sound sane, it's what we subsequently learn what Poke has done (or to be specific, not done) in the past few years that has us seriously thinking he needs to be thrown in the loony bin. We learn that he must not have been paying much attention in school, because before he even gets to meet Mary Lee or his boy, he somehow has the visual picture that his now 5+ year-old son must still be a baby (!) Not only that, even when he first gets back to that small town in Texas, he doesn't even know what the name of his son is. "Wait a minute!" I am sure you are thinking. "You mean that though one of Poke's aims is to reunite with his son, during those five years he spent in prison he not once bothered to give Mary Lee a phone call or even write to her regarding their son?" Incredible as that may seem, there is absolutely no evidence in the movie to suggest otherwise.

It shouldn't then be any surprise that when Poke gets on the phone to tell Mary Lee that "For the last time, this is NOT Lynda Day George!"he's back (though only after spending several hours getting plastered at the local tavern with the local yahoos) that he doesn't quite find the joyous reception that he expected. Well, that's not a surprise, since not only did Poke not write or call Mary Lee regarding their son, he apparently didn't bother at any time during the years to write or call her regarding themselves and their relationship. The brain-damaged Poke is pretty upset to not only find out that Mary Lee isn't exactly welcoming him with open arms, but that she has not been patiently waiting for Poke while he has been away and silent for five years. She's not just simply seeing some other man; the person she has been seeing for some time now and that has been supporting her has been (surprise!) Duke. Faced with this double-whammy blow of devastating news, Poke does the logical thing: break into Mary Lee's bedroom in the middle of the night to win her back. Well, maybe not logical, but it ends up making five years of silence and isolation look like nothing, and Mary Lee is his again. Apparently these two thoughtless idiots were indeed made for each other

As it turns out, however, the road to California isn't going to be an easy one for each of them. The very next day Poke accidentally witnesses Duke taking part in an act of assassination against Jesus (that is, a Hispanic politician with the name of Jesus), and when Duke deducts Poke saw him in the act, it's inevitable there will be soon be the sounds of sirens and screeching tires in the air. But it's hard to get involved in this action, or anything else that happens up to the closing credits simply because of the kind of person Poke is. To begin with, Timothy Bottoms is completely wrong for this kind of role. Though it would be inappropriate in this case to cast an actor with a kind of "superhero" persona - to engage our sympathies and attention, we not only have to believe this character could not only find himself in danger but have trouble just staying alive - we need someone who can reasonably give off the emotions we think of as a result of wondering, "How would I feel if that happened to me?" while watching the movie. But with Bottoms as the lead, we have a character that can't seem to generate much emotion. When he finds out Mary Lee is with Duke, his anger is about the level of someone getting a flat tire - right outside a service station. Though Duke ultimately pursues him with the aim of killing him, the only fear Bottoms give Poke can be seen in the unintentionally funny close-ups of his face while riding a motorcycle.

But it's not just that Poke is extremely bland, unable to properly express any kind of emotion. Are we supposed to root for a character who is the worst kind of illogical idiot, but a jerk to boot? What are we supposed to Nice try, but the real Jesus had better taste in jacketsthink about a guy that, right after having a devastating phone call with his intended-to-be, chooses for his immediate next action to waste even more time at a tavern in order to tell everyone about his glory days on the football field in high school? And when he had already (before making that phone call) spent plenty of time getting plastered with the local yahoos? How about when you add the fact that despite Poke at one point making some passing and feeble claim that he was framed, there is never any real evidence to suggest that he could be innocent of the charge? It's revealed that five years earlier Poke was a wild one, sounding like the kind of person that very well could have dealt with drugs. With all this in mind, you can't help but wonder just why Mary Lee would ever take back this bum, but why ever in the first place she not only fell in love with him, but had his child. The movie feels that they were made for each other, but it doesn't bother to tell us why. The character of Mary Lee is utterly empty, with no individuality and seemingly unable to make a decision that is truly hers. Whatever Mary Lee ends up doing is never a choice of a character, but a command by the screenwriter to act out what is most convenient for the situation so he doesn't have to spend more time thinking than any of his characters.

Susan George tries hard under the circumstances, but starting off immediately with the two strikes of having a feeble character and actually not that much time on the screen, she seems to know she's swimming against a strong current.  Still, the character of Mary Lee comes across as a more likeable character than Poke. In fact, Poke doesn't come across that much better when you instead compare him to Sheriff Duke. For the first half of the movie, Poke's supposed adversary doesn't come anywhere near the evil schemer that you typically expect for a southern sheriff. Until the assassination, he speaks calmly and rationally, and refuses to get angry or even annoyed when Poke either acts aggressive towards him or publicly mocks him right after inhaling helium. And while his relationship with Mary Lee may be little more than a glorified client/prostitute business deal, he doesn't pretend that it's anything else to Mary Lee or himself; as devoid of love and passion as it might be, it's honest for what it is. Though this kind of personality is unexpected and a nice change of pace, it does end up hurting the movie ultimately. Until Duke gets involved in the assassination, we don't feel anything villainous about this guy, who is supposed to be the movie's antagonist. Then when he gets involved with the assassination, it comes way out of left field; it seems out of character for someone who previously acted so calm and unaggressive.

Though stuck with a character that seems to have a split personality, Hopkins still gives it all he's got and gives the movie the little merit it has. He certainly looks the He was born to be wild-eyed - when not shutting his eyes in fearpart; it seems to be an unwritten cinematic rule that southern sheriffs must look like or be a Bo (Hopkins or Svenson.) At the beginning Hopkins sports a southern accent, but apparently it didn't take him long to realize how forced and unconvincing it sounded, since he soon drops it. Apart from that slight embarrassment, Hopkins does the best anyone could do with such a schizophrenic role. He is amiable when the first half has his character laid back, and then when Duke becomes violent out of the blue he is both brutal and scary. His best scenes are whenever Duke is very short of temper and suddenly flies into a violent rage; Hopkins acts out these atomic bursts of anger so convincingly that we can almost accept his character abruptly changing his personality so drastically in the second half. Ultimately, however, Hopkins' great efforts end up doing little for a character that is as poorly written as his co-stars. There is little to no explanation for what he does; among other things, we never find out just why he got involved with the guy who hired him for the assassination, nor do we find out how he manages to conclude Poke saw him in the act when there is absolutely no evidence of this lying around.

I have a feeling that at this point when I am starting to conclude the review, there will still be some people curious about the movie. Such people I suspect will just care about indulging in all those sirens and screeching tires, and won't care anything about the poorly written characters. Probably they also won't care about any of those illogical moments I also talked about (and I won't even start to go into the absurdity to be found surrounding the assassination sequence.) Though these people will ultimately find themselves disappointed; I'm not even sure this movie really deserves to be filed in the action genre. The reason for that is that up to that assassination sequence halfway through the movie, there is absolutely no attempt at action. The first half of the movie is in fact remarkably dull, with those sorry excuses for characters not just spending most of their time talking, but talking very little that is of interest or importance to the story. Though even when motorcycles and cop cars start revving their engines, the excitement level barely flickers upwards. The chase sequences consists of shots of vehicles clearly far from exceeding the speed limit, all edited together with exceeding incompetence that continuously changes the background setting and magically transporting various obstacles right in front of the pursuers or the pursued. Ultimately, the only good thing of real substance to come out of the making of A Small Town In Texas was a cool poster. It happens to be reproduced on the video cover, so you can see the best the movie has to offer without having to pay a dime for a rental fee.

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See also: Skeletons, Speedtrap, The Stranger

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